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Amtrak, all boxed in

Q: What's stranger than wanting to bring firearms aboard trains? A: Language in the law that appears to require passengers to be secured in boxes.

December 26, 2009

Ever since Amtrak banned passengers from bringing firearms onto its trains, a step it took shortly after 9/11, the gun lobby has been working hard to get weapons back on board. While this campaign would hardly seem appropriate for a country with terrorism concerns, such has been the case.

Part of the eight-year delay has been due to the difficulty of resolving security issues. One problem, for instance, is that many Amtrak stations across the country are little more than a platform and two tracks, and they don't have the personnel to inspect or check luggage, let alone monitor whether weapons are properly stored and secured. The 28 million travelers heading to one of Amtrak's many destinations in 46 states face nothing like the scrutiny they'd get at the nation's airports.

But for once, the stars aligned and the pro-gun people and the anti-gun violence crowd reached an accord. Amtrak, they decided, would be given a year to develop and implement procedures under which firearms, if appropriately locked and secured in boxes, will be allowed in train cars that carry checked baggage. Anyone wanting to pack a firearm must give Amtrak advance notice and must leave from a station that offers baggage check services.

So far so good. But there was a glitch. On its way to the Oval Office for the president's signature, the wording of the law somehow got garbled. As signed by President Obama, it now seems to require that passengers and Amtrak personnel -- not guns -- are to be safely secured in boxes.

The law reads: "The guidance and procedures developed under paragraph (1) shall . . . include any other measures needed to ensure the safety and security of Amtrak employees, passengers and infrastructure, including in fiber, wood, or metal boxes."

Oh dear. The law was supposed to include language permitting inspections of gun and ammunition containers and the suspension of firearm carriage service upon receipt of credible intelligence of terrorist threats. But all that got lost.

Now lawyers are trying to figure out what to do about a federal law that requires Amtrak to stow riders in baggage check. Congress will no doubt rectify the error next session and insert the correct language.

But in the meantime, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence fired off the best line of all, noting archly that each year about 30,000 Americans are already securely locked away in human-size boxes, thanks to guns.

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